Mission Impossible

Late in the afternoon of Sunday, October 3, 1993, nearly one hundred elite American soldiers slid down on ropes from Black Hawk helicopters into a part of Mogadishu controlled by the warlord Mohammed Farrah Aidid. They were supposed to abduct two of Aidid’s top lieutenants and return to base overland. The mission was intended to take one hour. Instead, the task force was pinned down and fought for their lives throughout the night. Two of the Black Hawks were shot down in Aidid’s territory and two, badly damaged, had to crash-land at the base. When the force was finally extricated early the next morning by a multinational UN group led by Malaysians and Pakistanis, eighteen of its members were dead and seventy-five wounded. For every American killed or wounded there were at least a dozen Somali casualties; conservative estimates reckoned there were five hundred Somali dead and perhaps one thousand wounded. The figures were probably higher. It was the biggest firefight involving American soldiers since the war in Vietnam.

In Black Hawk Down, Mark Bowden has reconstructed this extremely violent episode with amazing vividness and detail. The reader can visualize the action, smell the dust and sweat and the reek of explosives, and even enter into the exultation, fear, rage, pain, confusion, and exhaustion of the combatants. Bowden never loses sight of the human qualities and reactions that are, in the end, decisive in battle. Because he was able to interview survivors on both sides relatively soon after the action, Bowden’s story has a vitality and freshness usually lacking in accounts of combat. He has written an extraordinary book. It is also a shocking one.

How could the efforts of the United States to help the long-suffering people of Somalia possibly end in this way? In the autumn of 1992, President George Bush’s last grand international gesture as president had been Operation Restore Hope, a task force headed by a large contingent of US Marines and soldiers. Its mission was to provide a safe and secure environment for the distribution of relief supplies to the starving Somali people after a catastrophic famine. Relief supplies had been regularly held up or stolen by members of the various factions fighting for power in Somalia, and the various organizations engaged in humanitarian aid needed protection. The strictly humanitarian mission, under US command, would last just a few months. It had no political objectives. The task force arrived in Somalia in December 1992.

From the start there was a misunderstanding, which soon developed into a disagreement, between the United States and the UN secretary-general, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, about the tasks and objectives of the mission. The secretary-general was convinced that disarming the Somali factions and setting up a civil administration and police force were essential to establishing the “secure environment” that was the principal aim of the mission. The Bush administration was unwilling to consider disarming the factions and was skeptical of anything that hinted at “nation-building.”

In his campaign …

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